Central America is experiencing a wave of unrest that is remarkable even for a region whose history is riddled with turbulence. The most recent example is a political upheaval in Guatemala as the country heads for a runoff presidential election in August.
A look at various events roiling Central American countries:
Guatemala is locked in the most troubled presidential election in the country’s recent history. The first round of elections in June ended with a surprise twist when little known progressive candidate Bernardo Arévalo of the Seed Movement party pulled ahead as a front-runner.
Now headed to an August runoff election with conservative candidate and top vote-getter Sandra Torres, Arévalo has thus far managed to survive judicial attacks and attempts by Guatemala’s political establishment to disqualify his party. It comes after other moves by the country’s government to manage the election, including banning several candidates before the first-round vote.
While not entirely unprecedented in a country known for high levels of corruption, American officials call the latest escalation a threat to the country’s democracy.
El Salvador has been radically transformed in the past few years with the entrance of populist millennial President Nayib Bukele. One year ago, Bukele entered an all-out war with the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatruchas, or MS-13, gangs. He suspended constitutional rights and threw 1 in every 100 people in the country into prisons that have fueled allegations of mass human rights abuses.
The sharp dip in violence that followed Bukele's actions, combined with an elaborate propaganda machine, has ignited a pro-Bukele populist fervor across the region, with other governments trying to mimic the Bitcoin-pushing leader.
At the same time, Bukele has announced he will run for reelection in February next year despite the constitution prohibiting it. He has also made moves that observers warn are gradually dismantling the nation’s democracy.
President Daniel Ortega is in an all-out crackdown on dissent. For years, regional watchdogs and the U.S. government raised alarms that democracy was eroding under the leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front. That came to a head in 2018 when Ortega’s government began a violent crackdown on protests.
Most recently, Ortega forced hundreds of opposition figures into exile, stripping them of their citizenship, seizing their properties and declaring them “traitors of the homeland.” Nicaragua has thrown out aid groups such as the Red Cross and a yearslong crackdown on the Catholic Church has forced the Vatican to close its embassy. The tightening chokehold on the country has prompted many Nicaraguans to flee their country and seek asylum in neighboring Costa Rica or the United States.
President Xiomara Castro took office last year as the first female president of Honduras, winning on a message of tackling corruption, inequality and poverty. The wife of former President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a military coup, she won a landslide victory.
But her popularity has dipped as many of her promises for change have gone unfulfilled. At the same time, the government has sought to mimic neighboring El Salvador's crackdown on gangs, responding fiercely to a grisly massacre in a women’s prison in June.
Once known as the land of “pura vida” and mild politics compared to the surrounding region, Costa Rica has been gradually losing some of its luster. Homicides have soared as the nation has become a base for drug traffickers. President Rodrigo Chavez, who took office last year, has promised more police in the street and tougher laws to take on the uptick in crime.
At the same time, a migratory flight from Nicaragua has overwhelmed the country, which is known as one of the world’s great refuges for people fleeing persecution. The government has since tightened its asylum laws.
Panama is headed into presidential elections in May, with simmering frustration at economic woes, corruption and insecurity acting as a potential harbinger for change. Any shift could have global significance due to Panama’s status as a financial hub.
The nation has also become the epicenter of a steady flow of migration through the perilous jungles of the Darien Gap running along the Colombia-Panama border.
Belize is often seen as a place of relative calm in a region that is anything but. A former British colony named British Honduras, Belize’s government system is still tightly tethered to the country. But Prime Minister Johnny Briceño has sought to distance his nation from the monarchy. The nation is also one of the few in the Americas that maintains formal ties with Taiwan amid a broad effort by China to pull support away from the island country by funneling money into Central America.